This photo is by Wendy Johnston. It accompanied the following essay by Rachel Parsons of Athens, WV, originally published this under the same on her blog Mountain Girl Writes on September 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.(Rachel has another essay here on civil disobedience in WV at the Mountain Mobilization. I've got a short interview with her here. Other posts in this series Larry Gibson 1946-2012 are indexed here.
In loving memory of Larry Gibson, 1946 – 2012
I’ve been involved in the movement to stop mountaintop removal for over three years now, which is a relatively small period of time when I think about the many people who’ve been involved for much longer. Fighting big coal has come to define me to such an extent that it feels like a lifetime since I first heard Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson speak. Judy and Larry were two coalfield residents whose words were more than just genuine; they were passionate and empowering.
Larry Gibson was a spunky little man who talked big, and it was not difficult to believe every word he said. I always believed that he would fight for the mountains until he took his last breath. People like Larry don’t just stop fighting for something when the fight gets too hard. Larry’s fight was always hard. Throwing his lot in with the “tree huggers” and refusing to sell the last remnants of his home on Kayford Mountain to the coal company meant that Larry made a lot of enemies.
People shot at his house, vandalized his property, poisoned and shot his dogs and threatened his life. The police ignored Larry’s problems, claiming that Larry lived in “No Man’s Land” on Kayford Mountain and that there was nothing they could do to help him. Despite this, Larry was not deterred. He never claimed to be a saint or anything of the sort, just a man who owed his life to Kayford Mountain, but there must have been some part of him with divine patience. How many people can claim that all those things, or even of those things, wouldn’t scare them away from their home?
If anyone wonders how bad the harassment of Larry Gibson really was, well, let me tell you a little story. It’s about a nineteen year old girl who went with her family to spend the Fourth of July with Larry and a large group of mountaintop removal protestors on Kayford Mountain for Larry’s annual Fourth of July festival. That nineteen year old girl was me and I was brand new to the movement. I’d met Larry a couple of times before but didn’t know him well. He welcomed my family – my mother, my brothers, my grandparents, and me – with open arms, like he’d known us forever.
Not much for crowds, I retired to my tent early on to write. Larry had warned us all earlier that day that there could be some disturbance from locals who didn’t like what Larry stood for. While I was squirreled away in my tent, some of those locals showed up. I could hear raised voices from inside the tent and, afraid of getting involved in something potentially dangerous, I stayed where I was while our group was verbally assaulted by several locals. One of them was a large man who decided to express his disdain for us by eating several of the hotdogs we’d grilled while a female friend of his poured tomato juice all over our picnic area. They shouted vicious things at our group and at Larry, prompting my grandfather to place himself protectively in front of Larry. My grandfather told me later that he put himself in the line of fire hoping that one of them would hit him, so he’d have a real complaint to take to the police, since they wouldn’t listen to anything else.
When I emerged from my tent, the troublemakers had gone and we all tried to go about our celebration and pretend that nothing had happened. As Larry explained, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, which was of little comfort to us when it began to rain. My mother, my brothers and I were huddled together in a tent that leaked, none of us getting much sleep while locals roared their cars and four-wheelers past our camp all night long and shouted expletives and threats at us. After that night, I never doubted any claim Larry made of violence against him and his property and family.
Larry lived on what little remained of Kayford Mountain, which was his family’s ancestral home. He placed his fifty acres in a land trust that prevents it from ever being strip-mined, though underground mining still takes place. That fifty acres is all that’s left of over 500 acres owned by Larry’s family, most of which has been taken and destroyed by a mining company by way of a broad form deed that sold the mineral rights to the property, signed with an “X” by one of Larry’s ancestors. Larry would take all of his visitors to a place called “Hell’s Gate,” a point where you could look out at the destruction of Kayford Mountain.
The first time Larry took my family to Hell’s Gate, I was shell-shocked. There are no words to describe the site. People tried to describe the horror of it to me before I went, but nothing that anyone said could have prepared me for the sight of a mountain that had been nearly leveled. They don’t call it mountaintop removal for nothing. Kayford’s mountaintop is gone. Even worse was when Larry pointed out a patch of green that resembled an island, raised above the rubble and waste. He explained that it was his family’s cemetery, which the company was not allowed to destroy, but was now incredibly difficult to reach. Larry’s ancestors are buried in that “protected” cemetery.
It made me sick to my stomach and I knew I had to find a way to join the fight. Every time I saw Larry, he smiled and hugged me and encouraged me to stay involved. He was very concerned about getting young people to join the movement, because he said that we were the ones who would have to carry on the fight after he was gone. It never really occurred to me that one day we wouldn’t have Larry to lead the charge. He was such a powerful personality that it made me believe Larry would always have my back in this fight.
Now I’m twenty-two and still fighting. A little over a year ago, one of my heroes, Judy Bonds, passed away from cancer. Her death had a huge impact on the movement. I had only just escaped the melancholy that settled on me on the anniversary of her passing. With one powerful person gone, I know the vast majority of people in the movement looked to Larry for inspiration and guidance. I don’t use the word “hero” lightly. Larry fit the word in every sense. If a person grew weary of the fight, they only needed to go to Larry to get that metaphorical fire lit under their ass. Larry didn’t just ask you to fight, he told you flat out that it was your responsibility to fight and to fight hard.
I was not expecting to come home Sunday evening to news of Larry’s passing. In fact, I had no reason to expect that he would leave us any time soon. At sixty-six years old, he was lively and loud, though I was not under the illusion that he was in prime health. My mother and I pulled into the driveway of our home after a trip to the grocery store and we were met by my stepfather, who broke the news to us. My mother broke down in tears. For me, the news was so out of the blue that I wasn’t sure how to react.
The first thing I did was rush to my computer to uncover the facts about the situation. I found out that Larry had indeed passed away. He’d had a heart attack while working on his beloved mountain. I suppose he would have wanted to die up there but I’m sure he wasn’t planning on it happening so soon. He still had work to do, the responsibility for which has now been thrust upon his family and friends.
Activist and photographer Paul Corbit Brown took a video of Larry a few days before his death, in which Larry spoke of his love for Kayford Mountain. Kayford was not quite heaven, he said, but up there, he was one step up – one step closer to heaven. That’s testament to how much he loved that place, considering that most of it was already gone. Larry must have remembered Kayford the way she used to be, wild and rich with life. I can’t say what happens after this life, if we continue to another life or return to the earth, but one way or another, I hope that Larry was reunited with Kayford.
There’s so much to say about him. Physically, he was a small person and had an unassuming appearance. If it wasn’t for the neon green shirt and hat that he wore everywhere, he would have been an easy person to overlook. It was the fighting passion inside him that made him such a memorable person. He wanted to fight for Kayford, for every mountain in Appalachia, and he poured his heart and soul into it. He made sure that no one ignored him, going out on the road to speak all around the country and spread the word of the threat of strip-mining in Appalachia.
People said he looked like a highlighter out in public, clearly visible in his trademark green, which he said he chose because it caught peoples’ attention. The shirt and hat, now owned by many of us in the movement, bear the information for Larry’s foundation, The Keepers of the Mountains. “Love ‘em or leave ‘em, just don’t destroy ‘em,” he said. He wanted to win the fight against big coal and see a stop put to mountaintop removal more than anything. It makes me hurt and angry to know that he won’t get to see the final chapter of the story. He won’t be there when mountaintop removal is finally abolished.
It will feel so strange to celebrate that victory without him or Judy Bonds to get up in front of us all and tell us that we did it; we won against all odds. That’s all the more reason to keep fighting. If I count Larry as a dear friend, which I do, I know that I can’t throw in the towel now. It’s time to step up and carry the torch onwards, to make sure that our voice is not lessened just because Larry’s not here to clear the way in highlighter green.
All that being said, I miss Larry and it hurts so much to know that I’ll never see him again. He’ll never give me another hug, or tell my mother what a pretty daughter she has. Larry was special to me and my family. We counted ourselves as his people, people from Appalachia who were tired of being quiet, and it is like losing a family member now that he is gone. I thought I would get to see him soon in DC and I was looking forward to it. I feel hollow knowing that he won’t be here to lead us anymore.
Larry’s passing only strengthens my resolve. I want the world to hear his story and know the true cost of coal. I want everyone to hear about the suffering of the Appalachian people and our beloved mountains. Larry’s home was destroyed. The forests he explored as a child were demolished, his mountain was leveled, and yet our government thinks that this is okay. Worse than that, this has happened to over five hundred mountains in Appalachia, and more all of the time.
In Larry Gibson’s honor, I refuse to back down and allow the greedy rich to have their way. As Larry would say, it’s my job and it’s your job to see this through. It doesn’t matter if you live here or you don’t, if you’re a transplant or a native, or if you live on the other side of the world. Everyone should care about this, and everyone should want to preserve and protect the Appalachian Mountains.
I know what Larry meant when he said that being on Kayford was “one step up.” There is something divine about these mountains, about the land I have loved since I was a small child, and I have felt that strong connection to it that Larry had. Imagine the most important thing to you in this world, the one thing that you keep in your soul, so deeply ingrained in your being that it defines you. Then you will understand what it is like for me and for Larry, to love this place. Maybe then you’ll want to join us and carry on Larry’s legacy, to move us ever closer to a world where these mountains are protected for future generations.
This is an invitation. If you’re not already involved, stop wondering whether or not this is your fight and jump into the fray. It is not an easy fight. People will try to hold you back every step of the way. They’ll call you a liar and many less pleasant names, they’ll try to label you as an outsider who has no right to speak up, but no matter where you live, you are not an outsider. Larry would have wanted you with us. Join us and help us keep the mountains.
Photo by Paul Corbit Brown of him and Larry Gibson at the week-long June 2011 March on Blair Mountain, c. 2011.
This is a guest post written by my friend photographer and activist Paul Corbit Brown, with the selection of the photos, some editing and arranging by me. The cliche is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Paul Corbit's are worth many more.
- The first section explains his thoughts on the above picture he took of of the Larry and him, and memories it evokes. (I had how he had caught the image, thinking maybe he used a shutter delay, a cable release or some other piece of camera gear.)
- The second section tells about the day he got to spend with Larry on Thursday, September 6 at Larry's home on Kayford Mountain.
- The next three sections intersperse Paul Corbit's email to Jeff Biggers (published in the latter's eulogy) with what Paul Corbit wrote about "In the days to come..."
- Next is a short video Paul Corbit took of Larry September 6 (which I hope to be able to embed at a later date.)
- The last four sections are pair photographs Paul Cobit took of Larry at his home on Kayford Mountain with Paul thoughts on each. The first of these was taken in May, the others on September 6.
How I took the top picture and what it means
I just hold the camera at arm's length and press the shutter with my thumb. It's not the best photo, but I cherish it...This photo was taken at the March on Blair. When I do these kinds of photos, I usually just hold the camera straight out in front of me, but there were so many people there, I thought shooting from above would isolate the two of us. I remember thinking that as a photographer, I have pictures of everyone else and everyone else together, but I'm usually not in the pictures. I wanted to have a picture to remember being with Larry on this march because I felt like it was a really important event and his friendship has always meant so much to me.
Larry and I had a lifetime of conversations on Thursday
Somewhere in the middle of a very serious discussion, he suddenly stopped, punched me lightly in the arm to make sure I was listening, and he said, "Paul Corbit, you know what the real problem is? I'll tell you. I'm short and good looking' and you're just too damn tall. And there's really nothing we can do to fix it." Larry always knew how important humor is to friendship and to keeping someone's attention.
Looking at this photo of us together on the March for Blair will always remind me of him saying that even though the photo was made over a year ago.
To say... [Larry] had an enormous impact on all of our lives wouldn't be enough.
To say he was a hero wouldn't be enough. To say he changed our lives wouldn't be enough. To say has was deeply loved and will be missed wouldn't be enough. But let me tell you what was on his heart just days ago.
He stressed that this fight was never about him or his mountain alone. It was, and is, about all of us and our shared future. It is about the thousands of young people that he called his kids. It is about those not yet born.
It wasn't about Larry Gibson and a mountain. He wanted to be a voice for all people and the mountains and homes they love. He wanted to speak for Justice and to inspire those too frightened to speak. And even those who called Larry an enemy and wished to do him harm, he spoke of them, still, as "His People."
In the days to come...
It is only natural and appropriate that we will ask ourselves, “What would Larry want?” or “How can I best honor Larry?” There are a multitude of answers to these questions, but I believe one answer will always come to the top: We must Speak. Each of us must find our voice and we must Speak, Speak, Speak. We must rise up with a mighty voice and we must Speak until our truth has been heard. We must speak from the tops of our mountains and through the corridors of power. We must speak and never let up until our Truth has been made manifest and Justice has been firmly established in our homes, our communities, our air and our water. This is the greatest honor we can bestow upon Larry, Judy and all those that have come to illuminate Truth and shine a light upon our path.
Rest in Peace, Larry
It was only appropriate that you should be on your mountain when you left this world. You can rest assured that we who you left behind will not rest until we finish the work you so passionately and courageously began.
Video: Larry Gibson, Almost Heaven
Here's the link on facebook until an open source link is available.
Now, I'm not in a big hurry to leave here, but I'm pretty close to heaven when I'm here.
Larry with "Dog"
I made this photo on May 26, 2012. I had spent the day working on Larry's solar panels. I remember asking him if I could do a photo of him before I left. "Sure," he answered, "What do you want to do?" I asked him if he minded doing one with him beside "Dog's" grave. He looked at me a bit questioningly, but went along with it. I only made a couple of images then we returned to his porch to say our farewells for the day. He was a bit quiet and I was worried I had made some horrible mistake in asking for this. At some point, his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Thanks for doing that. Nobody ever asked to take a picture of me with him since I buried him. I really miss that dog. We went through a lot together. He was a good friend." Thank you.
A man and an icon
Larry asked me to talk with him about his idea of going to the UMWA rally against Patriot Coal on the following Tuesday in Charleston, WV. It was a long conversation, but the essence of it was that Larry was well aware that he had become an icon with his green shirt and cap, and he was aware that this icon was often an inflammatory presence with folks in the coal industry. While Larry was always opposed to coal, not just MTR, he was NEVER opposed to coal miners.
Larry was truly a man of the people and he always wanted to speak for what was fair and just. A lot of folks could (or would) never understand this about him. He always believed the people of Appalachia deserved better than merely the choice between poverty or destroying Appalachia with the devastation wrought by the extractive industries. He felt that he should go to the rally but he would, for the first time, not show up in his green shirt. He said he had made a promise to himself that he would not, under any circumstances, talk about MTR or mining in general. He wanted to be there in support of the workers, people who he believed were his own (and he was theirs).
He felt Patriot Coal was preparing to cheat the miners and he was firmly convinced that if they succeed in stripping the miners of their health cards and pensions, a domino effect would ensue through other industries- I think he's right. And so the photo is significant because he was prepared to step out as Larry Gibson, a man FOR the people, rather than merely the anti-MTR icon he had become. He never wavered in his conviction that MTR and coal in general should be abolished, he simply didn't want the politics of that to interfere with his concern that the miners deserved to be treated fairly by the company that had profited so greatly from their lives and the health they sacrificed for their jobs.
Hell's Gate Reprise
This photo has been made so many times, by so many photographers and visitors that it's quite possible a penny for each photo made might be combined to actually buy Kayford Mountain. But nonetheless, it was a ritual, a meditation, for many of us when we visited. It's both fascinating and chilling to see the changes in the landscape behind him over the years. They will spray their hydro seed and paint it green to cover their greed, but that won't replace the mountain, nor will it replace the ecosystem that existed there before the mining began. A few kinds of grass and a few scrubby trees won't replace a real hardwood forest and the nearly 1,000 species of plants that existed on that mountain before it was destroyed. I once commented to him that they were pulling out the threads in the fabric of Life and I asked him how long it would be before they realized we are all wearing the "Emperor's New Clothes." He looked at me for a moment and answered, "Probably not until it's too late, but we have to keep trying."
Larry on top, with clouds
Seeing him here, if one doesn't know what is really in front of him, it's easy to imagine he's at the top of the mountain. It's beautiful and haunting because once you learn what's on the other side, you begin to look suspiciously at the presumed "top" of every other mountain. I wonder how Martin Luther King's speech would have been different if he had been to the top of this mountain and seen the other side...
These were the last photographs I made of Larry Gibson as he walked upon this earth.
I am certain there will be more [on this post]. Words usually come to me in the middle of the night and I have learned to roll over and grab something to jot them down, otherwise they evanesce with the morning light. In the meantime I hope these photographs will help us remember him, his life, his message, his friendship, his courage, his passion and everything we shared together.
I know we all wish we could have just one more walk on the mountain with him.
This photo by Wendy Johnston (used by permission) shows Larry Gibson waiting to be taken to jail in Anacostia, after sitting in at the White House in September 2010 By then, Judy Bonds was already too sick from cancer to attend the "thousand-hillbilly march” she'd envisioned. Larry, Wendy and her family and I were among 2,000 Appalachians and allies at Appalachia Rising, which preceded the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, but garnered little national coverage beyond one piece in The Hill and an AP article. The latter distorted a serious protest into to some kind of colorful neo-hippy celebration, despite the fact that 125, including Larry, chose to be arrested. There wasn't a good news account until Judy's obituary in the New York Times.
Bo Webb told The Guardian that I should be the one to write a commentary there on Appalachia Rising. I first used Wendy's picture for the draft on my blog. I titled it "Appalachia Should Abide," which was a variation of a line "Mountains should abide" a line from "Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County." The line was inspired by Psalm 125:1: "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever."
I wrote that poem for Larry , when I met him through the West Virginia Writers' Mountaintop Removal Tour in October 2006. My fellow poet Chris Green--who heads Berea's Appalachian Studies program, but was at Marshall at the time-- had told me about the tour and OVEC kind made space for someone from Virginia. I also wrote a piece for LLRX.com "Strip Mining on Steroids" that was later part of the testimony at the United Nations.
Larry is survived by his wife, Carol, his sons Cameron and Larry, Jr. and his daughter, Victoria. He was sixty-six years old. The funeral will be private and public memorial service will be announced later. Larry's family has requested that condolences be in the form of donations to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which Larry founded in 2004 to support mountain communities. September 11, the Foundation let me know that you can sign the memory book here.
I first published this piece at 10:42 p.m. on September 9, 2012, shortly after finding out about Larry's his death. I last revised it at 10:39 p.m. on September 11. There will be subsequent revisions, most recent being on September 14 at 8:52 a.m. in order to index and link here to other folk's pieces on Larry, which will include:
- some of Larry's speeches and interviews
- words and photos from his friend Paul Corbit Brown
- an excerpt from Trish Shapiro's book
- Katey Lauer's memory of the first time she visited Kayford Mountain.
- Dave Cooper of Lexington, KY, writes about his memories of Larry (They traveled for years with the Mountaintop Removal Roadshow.)
- Rachel Parsons writes about keeping Larry's legacy
- Danny Chiotos, Keeper of the Mountains' Operations Director, talks about Larry and the Foundation he created
Larry Gibson lived thirty-five miles southeast of the West Virginia capital of Charleston. His family had looked up to the peaks that surrounded them since the late 1700s. Over 300 of his ancestors lay buried in the family grave yard.
Like many Southern Appalachians, Larry left home to find work, returning when he retired, in his case from General Electric.The destruction started in 1986.
I remember when they started mining here. It was a fine day: pretty sky, no clouds. All of a sudden I heard thunder in the distance. Couldn’t see no clouds, but we heard thunder. That was in spring of ’86.
By the fall of ’86, it was upon us – we could see the dynamite explosions and we were breathing in their dust.
Then by the spring of ’87, we could taste it in our mouths. It was foreign. We didn’t know what it was, or if it was legal to blow up a mountain. I mean, who does that? I just didn’t believe it, I couldn’t fathom it. But I was hearing it, and I was seeing it in the distance, and then finally I could throw a rock and hit it.
When asked whether he had a picture of Kayford Mountain before mountaintop removal mining, Larry'd say he had always thought,
Why should you take a picture of a mountain? It's going to be here forever.By 1993, Larry put his land and the mineral rights to the coal below in trust as Stanley Heirs' Park, when he found out that his 53 acres land was worth over a million dollars an acre. That same year Massey Energy offered Larry $140,000 for his land. Larry didn't turn down Massey because of its bad offer, though.
But you see, for me, there's no amount of money that could buy this place, even if it was for sale. You know, you've heard of people that talk about their roots. Well, this is it, for me . My family, the last three hundred years came from this place...at least. How do you wipe that off? How do you make that okay? Does money pay for that? No. Money doesn't pay for everything.
Massey didn't go away. Instead it continued to pushed the trees and topsoil it regarded as "overburden" into the valleys, drilled holes and set charges of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, blowing eventually blowing up the surrounding releasing coal and silica dust into the air and releasing toxic heavy metals such as mercury, copper, arsenic, lead and selenium into the streams which feeds the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Larry would tell folks,
I will not be satisfied to be called a victim. I am a survivor.You rarely see the mountaintop removal mining from the interstate in West Virginia. It's hidden over the ridge. In October 2006, when a group of writers walked with Larry up his farm path to the gate that marks the end of the 53 acres he'd preserved, we were staring out over an abyss. Larry told us it was "the gate of Hell." When we flew over later, we could see just how much was gone.
I lost kin in the Holocaust. Seeing Larry's homeplace reminded me of visiting Ann Frank's annex in Amsterdam . If Stanley Heir's Park were the annex--one family's tragedy--what lay beyond was Dachau. The vast destruction left me tearless, hollowed me, much as Big Coal had hollowed out the land which had once been Kayford Mountain.
Because Larry refused to sell out to Big Coal, he'd been threatened and even shot at. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2006 that his first marriage ended "over his doggedness and the blasting and the threats to his life."
My wife left, but I could not leave this land. You pay a terrible price in this fight, but paying their price is worse.
This photo of a mobile home in Rita, WV, owned by Russell Spear after being purchased for $200 in 1978, accompanied Martha Sparks's August 31 story in the Logan Banner, which has 29140 views, according to the paper's website. I first published this post on September 5, 2012 at 8:28 p.m. and updated it mostrecently on September 7 at 11:02 a.m.
It's bad enough when Logan County has its mountains blown up
Economic development touted in Logan County and surrounding areas after mountaintop removal includes the so-called Hatfield-McCoy Trails for ATVs, dirt bikes, and utility vehicles. It's bad enough that West Virginia memorializes a mythic feud as our heritage and allows strip mining on the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, our own civil war over unionization for the coal fields.
It's worse when that development contributes to another act of depopulation of the former coal camps. An absentee landlord hopes to displace more than more than 30 families in Rita, WV in Logan County and build a motel and convenience store to cater to tourists of the trail. At the end of August, DB Land LLC, reportedly of Topeka, gave notice that residents should make plans to remove themselves and their belongings from property by October 1. Trailers and modular homes or trailers left on the property--many of which replace the original coal camp structures--would be destroyed.
Thankfully a local journalist is more than a stenographer for economic development
Martha Sparks (email)--who still uses the quaint title of Society Editor--is writing about more than the lifestyles of the rich and famous. She explains,
the lease termination notice sent to residents...stated that...[DB Land] had decided to use the property for commercial development purposes. Most of the residents were born and raised in the camp. Many of them are elderly or disabled and with low income.Sparks took the time to interview resident Russell Spears, who told her,
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.Friends of Mountains (FOM) says there is organized opposition
James Blunt (email) of Rita is trying to organize opposition, according to a letter to the FOM email list. Someone wrote the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to say that Blunt is
asking that folks call Rahall's office to at least ask for an injunction on the eviction process until the community members can find other places to live.
Rahall's numbers are: Logan 304.752.4934; DC 202.225.3452...
If you feel moved enough to call Rahall, and to perhaps pass this info on to others who may call, perhaps this eviction can be either avoided or made easier with help in finding places to relocate, and with financial assistance for the moves.
Sparks doesn't mention the opposition, but she did a good job of letting Spears tell Rita's story
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.Spears added that the former owners son collected the rent:
He was giving out lifetime leases and telling some that they were buying their property and all they had was their rent receipt....He really pulled that off. It went like for five years and we never heard from them. Then their coal ran out and it was sold to this bunch. [DB Land LLC] Well they found out that the coal wasn’t there and what was there was underground and it would cost them too much to mine....That’s when they noticed this little piece of property. When they bought this land, they didn’t even know they owned this community. They thought they only bought the coal.Spears told Sparks that Mike Cline, representative for DB Land initially told residents that they would be able to purchase their lots.
Well, the main man was supposed to come in and talk to us. He drives up in his Cadillac with his surveyor and they sit behind the church for a few minutes and then he left....I got a hold of Mike Cline and he tells me that they have changed their mind and they are not going to sell to us and they are going to make us all leave.... They told me that if I wasn’t out of here in three months they would take equipment and move our stuff....My trailer was purchased by the Red Cross for $200 for me when my house burnt in 1978. If I move it there won’t be anything left of it....There’s no where to rent to put a trailer.It seems a first priority to find folks in Rita a pro bono lawyer
A lawyer could outline legal rights and how to document them for a fight. Do folks have copies of the lifetime rights agreements. Are they legally binding? Since Appalmad complains about absentee landlords, I'm wondering if that public interest law firm can help or at least suggest someone?
Will members of Congress help?
Senator Rockefeller has recently stood up to the coal industry. Can he do anything for his constituents in Rita? Will coal aficionados congressman Nick Rahall and Senator Joe Manchin show they at least "care" about their constituents. It seems to me that the campaign to call Rahall and ask for more time doesn't give folks their do.
How about the professionals doing pr on Appalachia--can they make this story go viral?
A lot of money meant to fight the conditions in Appalachia goes to outsiders. I once had someone in DC tell me he had fought mtr because he had obeyed Woody Harrelson and sent money to a national environmental group.
In August, the Alliance for Appalachia hired Sue Lomenzo of Small World Strategies of Ashville, NC to do a media workshop on how to get the message out on the destruction of Appalachia by the effects of the coal industry. I'm wondering if she is offering any help past the workshop. Trayvon Martin's parents got his story out through a professional organizer, while Marissa Alexander languished for standing her ground against her abuser. The low-wage school bus aide who was bullied now has lots of options after a cell-phone video posted to You-Tube got 2 million views June 21 and folks donated over $700,000. AP is still reporting months later with WSJ picking up the story on on September 2.
In Appalachia, often the wrong stories get attention
The History Channel distorts the reasons for the Hatfield McCoy feud. CBS covers the drug scourge. Testimony about the lack Congressional legislation to protect clean water morphs into a coal porn story after an an award-winning art photo goes viral and few other than Jeff Goodell report it in context of the war on Appalachians by Big Coal.
How do we get the AP to make the story of Rita go national? I'm not even sure who the best person is to report this for WV Public Broadcasting now that Erica Peterson is gone. I was underwhelmed with the Derecho coverage and I'm not the only one.
Peterson, to her credit, is still reporting on WV from Kentucky, witness the superior job she did reporting on Murray Energy's attack on environmental journalist Ken Ward. Tim Thornton, who reports on Appalachian issues, such as coal ash in Giles and strip mining may have some ideas, too. As may Beth Macy, who is attending the inaugural annual poverty journalism conference at Washington and Lee, hosted by Knight. Or Sue Sturgis at the Institute for Southern Studies, who has reported on WV, despite its limited resources.
We are in a war zone
Some would think that's hyperbole, but I have to agree with native Appalachians such as Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb who make this complaint.
I've known about strip mining for years. Some of my friends were abolitionists in the fight against strip mining that resulted in the Surface Mining and Safety Act. And in Chris Green, who had published my poems, invited me to join the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltions Mountaiintop Moval Writer's Tour. Gunnoe, Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson and others asked writers to help them tell their stories.
In "Looking Out Over an Abyss in Boone County" for Larry Gibson, I wrote,
Big Coal has its way
they will blow up Blair Mountain.
Permits are pending.
Eighty years ago
10,000 miners rose up
ten days at Spruce Run
while federal troops
fired: civil war to keep
us company slaves.
Blow up Blair Mountain?
Feature Vicksburg, Bull Run gone
for thirty year's coal.
Mountains should abide
but Massey plays God
scattering our peaks.
How can we be the
Mountain State without mountains,
our home, a war zone?
That war continues
As in the Civil War and at Blair Mountains, Americans are pitted against their fellow citizens. Witness the most recent example of the harsh treatment of mtr protesters by the WV State Police who seemingly helped miners stirred up by their employers to surround and threaten them. Remember how Massey employees shouted down retired Congressman Ken Hechler--who had fought for their safety--when he said there needed to be a new school for Marsh Fork elementary school. Remember how they jeered when filmmaker Mari-Lyn Evans thanked Hechler at the premiere screening of Coal Country. As photographer Antrim Caskey wrote,
Talk-back to the screen came mostly from coal proponents who comprised about one third of the film’s audience. And when Evans thanked Ken Hechler in her pre-screening address, this vocal group errupted in jeers, catcalls and insults; in response, those who honor Hechler’s decades of service to the state of West Virginia, rose to their feet to give the 94-year-old a standing ovation. This was the tensest moment of the night.The Goldman Prize, the Purpose Prize and The Martin Luther King Award have recognized Gunnoe, Webb, Bonds and Hechler for their bravery in fighting mountaintop removal.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln knew our nation had not yet measured up
For the Lincoln bicentennial,Virginia Tech Library is hosting an exhibit from the National Constitution Center: Abraham Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War. The brochure states:
...at Gettysburg, he challenged Americans to take up the 'unfinished work"... Lincoln's words have echoed down the decaudes, speaking to what he termed on another occassion 'the better angels of our nature."
Civil war scholar Bud Robertson gave the inaugural talk on Tech's Lincoln exhibit
I missed the lecture to post the first draft of this commentary. I even missed any question and answer session.I ran into friends as they were leaving and was able to get there in time to say hello to Dr. Robertson. On his way out the door, he kindly stopped to answer this question.
"As a civil war historian, can you explain why Civil War battlefields are preserved even to the extent of fighting a Wal-Mart near Manassas, but in the meantime mountaintop removal is allowed on the site of The Battle of Blair Mountain."
Dr. Robertson told me that Blair Mountain had, for some reason, attracted no attention
Robertson seemed surprised that I had been asked to write an article by The Guardian and, in fact, the same paper had commissioned a second article by another author to write a second piece a year later. He said he read that paper and he'd check out my writing.
I didn't even mention that filmmaker and MacArthur "genius grant" winner John Sayles has talked about Blair Mountain. That Soledad O'Brien had won a CINE award for her documentary on CNN. That Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges--who spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent-- had included West Virginia in his new book about sacrifice zones and wrote again about Blair Mountain in July.
The eviction of the residents of Rita, WV is just the latest skirmish
The Battle for Blair Mountain was a fight for decent living conditions the parts of our region impacted by coal-mining. The forced ouster of families, many elderly and handicapped is just the latest skirmish in that fight.
Washington and Lee's poverty reporting conference that Beth Macy and I will be attending hopes "to build competence and community among people who report on the underside of the American dream." The keynote speaker will be Barbara Ehrenreich on “Poverty reporting: Investigating the manufacture of misery.”
And so I ask, when will the misery of Rita and elsewhere in Appalachia affected by Big Coal be reported? When will we attract enough national attention to sustain outrage and stop this war on our people by the coal industry, its politicians and its employees?
Mr. Lincoln, Appalachia could sure use some better angels.